In their 2019 piece Afloat, Eva O’Connor and Hildegard Ryan imagine a world where the climate catastrophe scientists have warned of has already happened. Dublin is under water and two young women try to find a way to survive the crisis. In the years since the play premiered at the Dublin Fringe Festival, the environmental endpoint they dramatized has become even more prescient. However, the artist-militants do not despair. Instead, they became even more invigorated by the opportunity the art offered to raise awareness of environmental issues. This is also the driving force behind Future Limerick, Ireland’s first climate arts festival, organized by Sunday’s Child, the theater company founded by O’Connor and Ryan in 2010.
Speaking to me from Belfast, where Sunday’s Child has just completed its first live post-pandemic performance, O’Connor explains that Afloat “made us start thinking very seriously about how you can talk about climate change in art in a way that will be entertaining and informative, without being depressing. I guess one thing we were interested in was how to provoke an urgent discussion that doesn’t cause people to put their heads in the sand. do you tackle the big issues while making them digestible for the public? The scientific facts are there on a plate, but how do you communicate them in an engaging and accessible way? How can art inform people without depressing them?
As Ryan explains, “Art and creativity can be very important tools for sparking a conversation about climate change.”
While Afloat proved to them the power of using theater to communicate an environmental message, the duo were keen to find a way to continue a conversation about “sustainability and climate change issues” through their work. “We were wondering what other things we could do to keep the conversation going,” Ryan says. They applied to ESB’s Brighter Future Arts Fund, a program to help artists and arts organizations engage with their local communities on climate change issues, and were one of five arts projects to get sponsorship. The others were the Theater Royal Biodiversity Garden, Waterford, run by artist Elaine McDonagh; a solar-powered greenhouse by David Beattie at the Visual Center of Contemporary Art in Carlow; Almanac for a Walled City, a partnership between sound artist Christopher Steenson and the Nerve Centre, Derry; and a light show during the Dublin Dance Festival exploring themes of sustainability and human connection.
Creating a festival, says O’Connor, was a way to “give a platform to other artists and activists who are also raising environmental awareness in their work.” Some of these feature on the programme: Dublin theater company Brokentalkers have reworked their installation Rising, which premiered at the Dublin Theater Festival last year, for the town on the Shannon side, while author Manchan Magan and teenage activist Saoirse Sexton will headline a discussion on individual action.
Sunday’s Child also invited ideas for a scratch party and were overwhelmed with the level of proposals: “There are a lot of people trying to have this conversation, in a lot of different art forms, who don’t have haven’t had a chance to put their ideas out there yet.” The company will also remount Afloat at the Lime Tree Theatre, to give local audiences an opportunity to reflect on the pressing themes their drama raises. The Lime Tree Theater in Limerick provides logistical support.
The Lime Tree was O’Connor’s local theater when she was an aspiring young artist, and he has supported Sunday’s Child since its early productions, “so there was an established relationship with a team of incredible women that we have known for years” . As Ryan explains, “We’ve never done a festival before, and they’ve helped give us a platform that we wouldn’t have otherwise.”
One of the issues that O’Connor and Ryan are keen to highlight in the festival and in their own work is the tension between individual and collective action. When the women first got involved in the environmental campaign, they explain, “there was this idea that if everyone did their part, everything would be fine,” as O’Connor puts it. “But the debate has really evolved from there now [taking] the burden away from personal and individual responsibility, [highlighting instead] the role that big business has to play. The question for activists, says Ryan, then is “how to balance personal action with political and corporate agitation.”
Ryan, who is based in London and has been involved in the Just Stop Oil movement in the UK for years, has first-hand experience of direct action. She was even arrested for it, after “breaking into an oil depot and locking us there to disrupt the supply chain.” For her, being engaged in direct action “really gives me hope that things can actually change, instead of being depressed and thinking ‘oh, nothing we do matters. Hahaha. We are all gonna die’. [Direct action] makes you feel like you can contribute to a bigger change; that basic action can yield amazing results.
O’Connor chimes in, “so you might not be able to change the world, but by working at the community level, you can change your little part of the world and everything that connects to it. [having a] great chain effect”. A festival like Future Limerick, then, they hope, will inspire local communities to come together to make changes that will have a collective effect. The fact is, they conclude, as artists, as individuals, “we don’t have any of the answers, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have a responsibility to ask the questions.”
Future Limerick: Climate Arts Festival, May 16-22, limetreetheatre.ie
Re-Staging: sustainable set construction company
The Irish theater community is getting a little greener this month with the launch of Re-Staging, a sustainable set construction company. Led by Stephen Bourke, who has 30 years of experience with companies such as Dublin Fringe Festival, Fishamble and Anu Productions, Re-Staging will use sustainably sourced materials to build, dismantle and reuse sets. The ambition is to reduce the quantity of virgin materials used in the construction of sets, to reduce landfills and unnecessary storage. Re-Staging hopes to achieve a carbon neutral design process and reduce the environmental footprint of the live performance industry. Re-Staging.com